Sam Mendes is back with another fantastic Bond film, one that despite being a little contrived, is always incredibly entertaining. As of yet, it's not entirely clear if this is Craig's last hurrah as 007, but if it is, he's going out strong.
After the disappointment of Quantum of Solace four years previously, Skyfall caught us off guard, when we were more susceptible to not just Bond’s charm, but also director Sam Mendes’. While it was by no means a perfect film, it was exactly what we needed it to be. Three years later, the same director has returned – and so has star Daniel Craig – to give us the highly anticipated follow-up, Spectre. Thankfully, Mendes presents us with another thoroughly entertaining spy film, though it never quite reaches the heights of its predecessor.
The words “the dead are alive” are what greet us for Bond’s 24th cinematic outing, followed by what is certainly the most gorgeous – and almost surreal at times – opening shots in Craig’s whole run as the British spy. Amidst the bustling Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival in Mexico, we see Bond dispense of his unsettling skeleton disguise, and give chase to his target, one that is concluded brilliantly with an exhilarating air-based struggle over a seemingly perpetual sea of extras. Inevitably, the usual opening credits scene soon follows and, despite the high-pitched wailing of Sam Smith’s dishearteningly mediocre ‘Writing on the Wall’, the fiery, octopus-laden images prove to be captivating; though they maybe do not quite feature the stylish flourishes that accompanied Chris Cornell and Adele’s opening numbers.
It’s the intent behind this first fifteen minutes that is most intriguing however, with familiar faces from Bond’s past (both friends and enemies) popping up during the credits sequence before quickly evaporating. This, coupled with the focus on the revival of the dead, exposes what Skyfall writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade were trying their best to do along with 007 newcomer Jez Butterworth: resurrect Bond’s past demons, forcing him to face the death and destruction that has lied in his wake, and discover the meaning – if any – behind it. All of this, as well as the reintroduction of evil organisation SPECTRE to the continuity, is of course an elaborate attempt to bring some kind of entwinement and closure to all of the stories in Craig’s Bond saga. For the most part it is a crowd-pleasing and rousing success, but there are just a couple of revelations that do not sit so well, particularly because of Christoph Waltz’s antagonist, Franz Oberhauser.
The major gripe with Oberhauser is that he stays in the dark for a bit too long, so by the time we get to properly meet him (after a brief glimpse in a tense, shadowy meeting room scene), the character development seems rushed, and his motivation seems a tad silly. Not revealing the villain until the third act of the film can be risky, and unfortunately here it doesn’t quite pay off – although of course Waltz gives an immersive performance as always. That being said, Bond’s stubborn search for SPECTRE’s secrets never at all feels boring (in spite of the 148 minute runtime), with it being interspersed with some excellent chases and brutal, well-choreographed fight scenes.
These primarily feature the burly and intimidating Mr Hinx, played by Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista, who you can tell is enjoying every single moment of being in a Bond film. In traditional henchman style, Hinx has little character depth, but every second that he’s onscreen is a frightening pleasure. Upon his and Bond’s first meeting, we’re treated to a thrilling car chase that boasts a new Aston Martin, and one that pulls off some of the classic tricks that you’d come to expect from any of the old school Bond films. This marriage of Connery/Moore and Craig-era sensibilities leads the pursuit to being almost as funny as it is exciting. Mendes sprinkles these kind of moments throughout the movie, and though it may seem a little tonally jarring at first, it’s maybe best to put aside preconceptions of the Bourne-esque grittiness displayed by Casino Royale, and to accept this rejuvenated vibe for what it is.
Another welcome source of humour is the excellent return of Ben Whishaw’s Q, who is so comfortable in the role that it feels as if he has always been part of the universe, with the same being able to be said for Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny and Ralph Fiennes’ M. It is Léa Seydoux’s turn as psychologist Madeleine Swann that is the real standout however, undoubtedly the strongest “Bond girl” since Eva Green’s Vesper. Not only is Swann an excellent foil to Bond’s bullshit, but she also proves her tenacity; her and Bond are both ferocious when fighting an enemy together on a train, with no soundtrack but the beat of the railway.
Mendes has done another great job here, something that is beautifully shot (Roger Deakins didn’t return as cinematographer, but Insterstellar‘s Hoyte van Hoytema acts as a more than worthy replacement), well-acted, and most of all fun. While a poorly defined villain prevents this from becoming an immediate Bond classic, Craig’s confident portrayal helps elevate Spectre to brilliance.
Spectre (2015), directed by Sam Mendes, is distributed in the UK by Sony Pictures. Certificate 12A.